"It's time for us to get in trouble, to make some noise and save our public schools; not just for this generation but for a generation yet unborn." With those words, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) implored AFT members to stand up to a do-nothing Congress and "fight more than ever before" against those who would turn back the clock on civil and human rights.
Lewis, the only speaker from the 1963 March on Washington still living, said that as a young man he was inspired by the actions of Rosa Parks and the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. During his remarks, he described the process that led to the 1963 march and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, including meetings with presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
With the 50th anniversary commemoration of the march a month away, the congressman urged conference participants to stand up for measures like comprehensive immigration reform and against voter suppression efforts. "It's time for us to once again get out there, for us to rally, to mobilize." This is not a time to be weary or satisfied, he said.
Lewis thanked the teachers by saying: "If it had not been for public school teachers, I wouldn't be standing here today as a member of Congress."
The "Building Our Strength Through Partnerships" general session opened with a panel discussion moderated by United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew.
Acknowledging that it's not easy work but recognizing that it's essential, leaders from the AFT and several partners in the labor, youth and faith communities spoke about the challenges and opportunities that come with building coalitions.
Karen Alford, the UFT's vice president for elementary schools, spoke of how the union and its partners are helping destitute families, including New York City's 50,000 homeless children, obtain food and necessities such as eyeglasses.
Andi Perez, executive director of Youth United for Change in Philadelphia, talked about how she has helped organize young people to knock on doors—in 90-degree heat—advocating for public education amid massive school closings. Why? "Because schools and teachers are the one thing that's constant in their lives, and they're fighting to protect them."
Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, whose union is one of the partners in the AFT-led Reconnecting McDowell project in West Virginia, spoke with eloquence and humor about how unions, wherever they are, help working people prosper. The answer to today's evisceration of the middle class, he said, is not white papers but a return to the streets in the footsteps of the Rev. King.
But it was the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the fast-spreading Moral Mondays protests, who set TEACH on fire. When he looks at Reclaiming the Promise, Barber said, he sees the promise of America's founding documents, written but never practiced. He sees periods of Reconstruction marked with expansions of rights, each followed by a conservative backlash. If we're going to change the nation, he said, we must change the South. And to do that, we need an anti-racist, anti-poverty coalition with a strong moral center that refuses to let bigots claim the high ground.
"If they're fighting us this hard," Barber said to applause and cheers, "we must be powerful."
Added Perez: "The end game is that we are going to win, and the only way we're going to do that is if we come together."
[Roger Glass, Annette Licitra/photos by Michael Campbell and Bill Burke-Page One]